MSU’s Hidden Lake Gardens contain world-renowned plant collections

Hundreds of national conifer enthusiasts admire beauty and rarity of trees in Tipton.

Michigan State University’s (MSU) Hidden Lake Gardens

Down the road and through the hills lie gardens laden with flowers, plants, and trees of every shape and size. No, it is not a fairytale land, it’s Michigan State University’s (MSU) Hidden Lake Gardens located in the Irish Hills in Tipton, Michigan. 

Supported by the MSU Land Management Office, the gardens contain a conservatory, six miles of paved roads, 10 miles of hiking trails and 755 acres of plants, including three prominent collections: the Benedict Hosta Hillside, which serves as the Michigan Hosta Society’s reference garden; the McCready Bonsai Courtyard; and the world-renowned Harper Collection of Dwarf and Rare Conifers. 

The Harper collection holds more than 500 conifer trees of common, dwarf and some extremely rare varieties.  

“There are plants in here that you simply cannot see anywhere else because we have the only one,” said Hidden Lake Gardens manager Steve Courtney. “We have 19 genera in the collection. We have plants with rare brooms, or interesting growth habits, and plants of sizes and ages you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a great collection of plant material.”

Members of the British Conifer Society visited the collection in 2009 and described it as one of the best arranged collections in the world. 

MSU professors have utilized the collection as well. Last year, MSU AgBioResearch scientist Bert Cregg supervised the work of two horticulture undergraduate students, Mitch Zost and Alan Dosenberry, who received funding from the American Conifer Society to gather data on the conifers. 

“From their data, we were able to calculate the plants’ growth rates and add our information to the American Conifer Society’s database,” Courtney said. “This will be an important data resource, both as a comparison for other conifers  and for landscape architects or hobbyist growers.” 

With this information, growers can know in advance how wide and tall certain conifer varieties will grow and can better plan their landscapes. 

“The data we gathered will be a useful contribution to the American Conifer Society database,” said Cregg, professor of horticulture and forestry at MSU. “The Harper collection contains some truly unique conifers, and it is to everyone’s advantage to have information on them more readily available.”

The collection was an important feature in the American Conifer Society’s national meeting in July. More than 300 conifer enthusiasts from across the country came to Hidden Lake Gardens to explore the collection -- the highest number of meeting attendees in the history of the society. Hidden Lake Gardens volunteers provided guided tours of the conifer collection, and guest speakers offered educational sessions throughout the day. 

“It was a great day and a great conference for those we affectionately refer to as ‘coniferites’,” Courtney said. “It was truly amazing how many people came out to see these plants for their business or because they’re just very passionate about conifers. It will keep dwarf and rare conifers going for many, many years.”

The conifer collection was donated by Illinois businessman Justin C. (Chub) Harper in 1981 as a way to give something back to the state in which his father grew up. The plants were transported from his home in Moline, Ill., and arranged by MSU Campus Parks and Planning architect Sam Lovell of the American Society of Landscape Architects.  

Courtney’s future goal for Hidden Lake Gardens is to establish a Michigan shrub evaluation program. He also hopes to expand the Harper collection into additional acreage. But mainly, Courtney said, he plans to be doing largely what he does now: serving as a steward for Hidden Lake Gardens.    

“As a 755-acre arboretum and botanical garden, every square inch of this place is important,” Courtney said. “Whether it’s working on our three main collections or forest management on our hiking trails, there’s something happening all the time. There’s always something in bloom to enjoy at Hidden Lake Gardens, be it January or July.” 

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